National news briefs: 12/29/12

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Port shutdown averted for now

NEW YORK -- Dockworkers and their employers reached a tentative agreement on royalty payments, averting a strike that would have shut down U.S. ports from Maine to Texas for the first time in 35 years.

The International Longshoremen's Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance will continue negotiations beyond the Dec. 29 deadline, according to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which was working with the two groups. An original extension to Jan. 28 was stretched to Feb. 6 to accommodate the year-end holiday season, the employers said.

A strike would have closed ports handling about 45 percent of U.S. commerce.

Circus, animal rights group

WASHINGTON -- The owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will receive $9.3 million from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals under a settlement that resolves protracted litigation over how the circus cared for its elephants.

Circus operator Feld Entertainment Inc. and the ASPCA filed dismissal papers in federal court in Washington Friday, ending litigation that had dragged on for more than 10 years, both sides announced in statements.

3 police officers wounded

GLOUCESTER TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- Three Gloucester Township officers were injured Friday morning and a suspect killed in a shooting inside the department's headquarters, authorities said.

Deputy Chief David Harkins said the shooting occurred about 5:30 a.m. when a person under arrest in a domestic violence case was being processed at the station.

"He got into a violent confrontation with the officers" and obtained a firearm, Deputy Chief Harkins said.

Bush's health 'improving'

HOUSTON -- Former President George H.W. Bush remains in intensive care at a Houston hospital, but he's improving. Bush family spokesman Jim McGrath said Friday that the 88-year-old former president's physicians remain "cautiously optimistic that the current course of treatment will be effective."

Mr. Bush has been hospitalized since Nov. 23. He is being treated for a fever following a bronchitis-related cough.

House panel ends probe

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. House panel ended a probe of alleged preferential lending by Countrywide Financial Corp. to lawmakers and aides without taking action, saying the "serious matters" submitted for review fall outside its jurisdiction.

Allegations surrounding mortgage loans to House members and staffers through Countrywide Chief Executive Officer Angelo Mozilo's "Friends of Angelo" initiative or other so-called VIP programs are either too old or involve people no longer employed in the House, the Ethics Committee's Republican chairman and ranking Democrat said Friday.

House rules preclude sanctions for violations that occur more than three Congresses -- or six years -- before the current one, lawmakers said.

Prison phone rates criticized

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission said Friday that it will propose rules to lower rates charged to prison inmates for interstate telephone calls, after considering the issue for nine years.

The agency said it would consider rate caps and other measures to rein in costs in the $1.2 billion market dominated by Global Tel.Link Corp. and Securus Technologies Inc., companies owned by private-equity firms.

Civil rights and religious groups supported by some members of Congress have pressed the FCC to act on a petition filed in 2003 by prisoners and family members to cut rates they termed "exorbitant." High rates isolate prisoners from family members, the advocates said.

Prisoners pay as much as $17 for a 15-minute call with their families, according to filings at the FCC.

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